All eyes are on Kentucky Tuesday, as Gov. Matt Bevin (R) faces down a very serious challenge from Andy Beshear, the state’s Democratic attorney general. How is it that Bevin is in such a tough race despite the heavily Republican lean of the Bluegrass State? And how much credit (or blame) does President Donald Trump deserve depending on the outcome Tuesday night?
I asked all those questions – and more! – of Philip M. Bailey, a political reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Why is a Republican governor in a comfortably Republican state in real danger of losing today?
Bailey: Matt Bevin has broken every part of the traditional political rulebook by quarreling with members of his own party and criticizing a group that has remained a third rail in Kentucky politics: public school teachers.
Bevin’s confrontational style with the press, the judiciary and other critics, even within the GOP, has hurt him in building a traditional coalition even as he was given supermajorities in the state House and state Senate. In many ways, the May primary was a wake-up call for the governor and his campaign when a freshman legislator with little name recognition beforehand, Robert Goforth, received roughly 40% of the vote.
Goforth’s campaign was less about policy and politics, and more about culture. He argued that Bevin, a New Hampshire native, wasn’t one of us and didn’t share Kentuckian values of basic politeness. As one Goforth supporter once told me, Bevin isn’t the type of man you invite to grandma’s house for potato salad.
Attorney General Andy Beshear, the Democratic nominee, has tried to capitalize on that by repeatedly referring to Bevin as a bully, as erratic and as someone you can’t take your kids to go see because of what he might say next.
Cillizza: There are lots (and lots) of comparisons made between Bevin and Trump. Are they fair/appropriate?
Bailey: In many ways Bevin was a preview of Trump’s candidacy when he first ran in 2015. He was an outsider and businessman who shrugged off political norms, such as refusing to release his tax returns after initially saying he would.
But there are some clear differences between the two.
The President is much more of a showman and entertainer who appears to enjoy the political fray and joust. Trump also inserts himself at the center of his political philosophy oftentimes.
Bevin is a true believer and a crusader who genuinely believes the country’s future is on the line when it comes to his evangelical beliefs around abortion, for instance. The governor often speaks in larger Socratic lectures about how the country has lost its way in terms of its values, its media and its politics.
Cillizza: The national Democratic Party isn’t popular in Kentucky. So how is Andy Beshear in the race?
Bailey: Andy Beshear is the son of a former governor, Steve Beshear, who left office as a popular rural Democrat [known] for expanding Medicaid. The Beshear family has been in Kentucky politics for about four decades and have name recognition from Paducah (Western Kentucky) to Pikeville (Eastern Kentucky) in the state.
Andy Beshear is also a methodical and disciplined candidate (some would say stiff) who has been hammering a message that as attorney general he’s stopped controversial parts of Bevin’s agenda to overhaul state pensions and cut higher education funding.
He also is working from a playbook by state Democrats that still believes off-year elections inoculate them from the national party, which is far more liberal than ancestral Democrats in the Bluegrass State. He has a two-punch combo on the campaign trail: anti-Bevin and kitchen table issues such as health care, education and jobs.
Cillizza: How much of this race has been about national issues (Trump/impeachment etc.) and how much is about state stuff?
Bailey: In the early stages it appeared this race was going to be all about health care, the economy and pension reform. But near the end of the summer the Bevin campaign made a clear pivot to talking almost exclusively about Trump, abortion and illegal immigration as much as the governor’s accomplishments.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “If Bevin wins, the person who deserves the most credit is ___________.” Now explain.
Bailey: “Donald Trump.”
The President has a frenzied fan base in Kentucky, which is only fueled by the talk of impeachment. One Democratic legislator told me at a Beshear campaign event that the party has one specific rule while out on the campaign trail and that is to never talk about Trump.
Trump is just as much of a cultural beacon for white, rural, conservative voters in the state as a political figure. He captures that mojo and was able to lend it to Bevin, who made every mistake possible in terms of traditional state politics.